Talleyrand and the hope for conversion

People regularly complain about the insincerity of our leaders, but none of them compares to the deceitfulness and hypocrisy of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, simply known as Talleyrand, the spineless diplomat from revolutionary France. Yet, I believe one day he will be in heaven, and his life, therefore, relates an important message of conversion and forgiveness.

To start with, Talleyrand became a priest for all the wrong reasons. A member of the French nobility, but denied a military and political career, he joined the church in order to gain access to wealth and power. Through family connections, he was made a bishop in 1789, even though he questioned church teachings and neglected his vow of chastity.

At the start of the French Revolution, he moved forcefully against the church in an effort to insulate himself from the attacks of liberal revolutionaries. He successfully advocated for seizing all church property and nationalizing the church, thus making the church subject to the French government. Moreover, he elevated four bishops into the new French Christian Church, and the Catholic Church, a rival institution, was made illegal. As a noble, he had to leave the country during the Reign of Terror, but was appointed foreign minister of the revolutionary government upon his return.

Foreseeing the collapse of the Republic, he was the principal plotter behind Napoleon’s coup and seizure of power. For his efforts, Napoleon made him a prince and offered him the position of foreign minister in his government. At the end of Napoleon’s reign, Talleyrand shifted his allegiance to the enemies of France, working with Austria and Prussia. After the fall of Napoleon, European leaders met at the Congress of Vienna to reorganize Europe, and the chief French negotiator was none other than Talleyrand.

A former revolutionary, Talleyrand facilitated the return of the French monarchy during the Congress of Vienna, and he retained his elevated status after the restoration. When the Revolution of 1830 ushered in a more liberal monarch, he switched loyalties once again and was given a position in the new government.

No one was more of a political chameleon than Talleyrand, adroitly switching his political positions to match the current leadership and thereby betraying his former allies. He was a church leader, revolutionary, Bonapartist, conservative royalist, and liberal royalist. Each position was radically different from the next, but he was able to navigate them masterfully, keeping his head firmly attached to his body, a tricky endeavor during the age of the guillotine. Most history books end at this point, and thus miss the most revealing chapter of his life.

According to his confessor, Talleyrand had a deathbed conversion, renouncing his errors and asking for full forgiveness from the church. Based on his past, many have questioned his sincerity. Was he trying to switch his views one last time? Was he attempting to fool God, like he tricked countless politicians? We will never know, but his confessor, who spent the final days with him, was convinced of the genuine nature of his conversion.

One of the most moving episodes of the story was when his niece, whom he called his “guardian angel,” placed a miraculous medal of the Blessed Mother around his neck. He remarked that he had previously received two similar medals from friends who were nuns. He showed them to a nephew, and said, “You see, I always carry them.” After he died, the two medals were found in his purse. Surprisingly, even when he was far from God, living a sinful life, he still knew the importance of religion and clung to those images.

His story teaches us some important lesson. One is NOT to wait until your deathbed to follow God. Talleyrand was fortunate, and he still might have to suffer much before entering heaven.

He does, however, teach us that no matter how much we distrust or dislike certain individuals, we should not hate them. We should pray for their conversion and hope, like Talleyrand, that they change their views before they meet God. Think of the person that annoys you the most. It is the calling of every Christian to desire that that person spend eternity with you; anything less would be unchristian.

Furthermore, this story provides reassurance to individuals with family members or friends who have wandered far from the path to heaven. Few strayed farther than Talleyrand, yet he came back. We should not be afraid, especially when friends are at the end of their existence is this world, to offer them a medal or prayer card, even if they have drifted far from God. For Talleyrand, it was his niece who aided his return to the faith. Will you be the one who prompts another individual to return to God?

Lastly, maybe you are in a similar position to Talleyrand, stumbling upon this blog but not normally interested in religion. You have a rosary that you always keep, but you cannot figure out why. Perhaps, if you are looking for more from life, it is time to take it out and use it.

In a time when lines are so clearly drawn between us and them, a false mentality would be to categorize the religious struggle as us versus them, rather than us and them versus the devil. In other words, Christians should not glory in the failure of those opposed to the faith, but tirelessly seek their conversion. Talleyrand, one of the most contemptible opponents of the church, proves that anybody can make their peace with God before they die.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.